Don’t be the leader with your hands in your pockets, but don’t be the leader with your hands in everything. – Jocko Willink
Anyone can improve their ability to lead, but one.
A person who lacks humility cannot improve leadership skills because they don’t acknowledge their own weaknesses and so they can’t work to improve them. On top of that, they won’t bring someone onto the team to offset their shortfalls.
Everyone else can get better, and while you might not be able to transform an awful leader into an excellent one, you can certainly coach a bad leader to become a better leader and a good leader to an outstanding one, regardless of how they’re born.
“Usually people with the biggest egos are usually the ones who need the most coaching.”
Subtly coaching, leading and mentoring
Instead of outright telling someone you’re going to lead, coach or mentor them, be subtler:
Instead of “I’ll tell you how we’re going to execute”, try “How do you think we should execute?”
Instead of “Let me coach you how to do that”, try “Can you explain what makes you do that way?”
Instead of “I will mentor you”, try “I would love to compare how you do things to how I do them.”
Recognizing your ego
When Jocko was hired to give leadership training to a multi-million-dollar company, he had a problem with the CEO of the company being egotistical. He tried to figure out how to handle this problem the CEO had. Jocko thought how could he be so egotistical? How could he not see his own arrogance?
Eventually Jocko started to question how was it that the executive team of the CEO didn’t seem to be bothered by his ego? How was it his frontline leaders didn’t see the same conceit and self-important that Jocko saw?
That is when it came to Jocko. In his own words: “Is it possible the problem is me? It hit me like a bolt of lightning. Could it be my ego causing this problem? Was there a chance that my fragile self-image could be threated by this beast of a human being who was not only physically gifted in size, strength, and athletic ability but also was extremely smart, a bold leader, and was running a hundred-million-dollar company – all at the age of thirty-two? Was there a chance that my ego was intimidated by all this and that I was the one who was acting like an idiot?” He added “Of course. Now that I saw what was happening, it was obvious – our two massive egos were bumping into each other and causing friction.”
Neutralizing your ego and theirs
So, Jocko approached the CEO in private and said “I just wanted to give you a quick assessment of everything I’ve seen so far. Your leaders are solid. Your company has great morale, and they really understand the mission here.” The CEO face changed slightly. “But the most impressive thing I’ve seen here so far is you. You’re smart; have great presence. Everyone here really understands your vision. It’s obvious that everything great I see at this company is a reflection of your leadership which is outstanding…”.
By the time Jocko finished talking, the tension between them has completely gone. The CEO replied “No way! I’m just a business guy. You’re the one who deserves respect! You spent your whole life in the SEAL Teams! You rose up through the ranks! You led men in combat in an incredibly hard environment. This is what deserves respect!” They both laughed as their egos disappeared in a matter of seconds.
Telling the truth
There’re many occasions where information is classified or forbidden to share freely. In those situations, answer is simple: tell the truth. “I’m sorry, but that is actually classified information that I am not allowed to discuss.” Or “Listen, I would like to share that with you, but due to the legal situation, I cannot disclose it right now.”
Leading from the middle
Detach yourself enough that you see the big picture but not too much that you lose sight of what’s happening in the frontline.
You don’t always need to lead, especially in the presence of your leader. Overstepping bounds can often undermine the relationship with your boss.
When mutiny is in order
There are times when you have no choice but to disobey an order in order to avoid a catastrophic failure. But before making that last stand, you should ask the boss to restate the purpose of the mission, and then assess that mission statement and explain to the boss the concerns.
Whatever you do, do not attack the boss. Statements like “this makes no sense”, “this plan is ridiculous” are wrong on two levels. First, they come across as emotional. Second, they are offensive. And when someone feels they’re being offended, they’ll dig in and become more defensive.
It’s much better to take an indirect approach like “I want to make sure I understand your thinking here so I can learn to think through these issues myself…”.
But when everything fails and it’s time to draw a line in the sand, say “Absolutely not. I will not do this your way.”
Building trust in small, calculated steps
The first mission you trust your subordinate to run shouldn’t be a major operation with huge consequences. It should be a simple operation with nothing at stake but ego and pride. Trust that you would let them solve problems and figure out things for themselves. If subornation were successful, your trust on him would increase. So will his trust on you. Repeat this process over and over again to build trust among your team.
Taking preemptive ownership
If you truly believe in extreme ownership, you have no excuses when things go wrong and will make every conceivable effort to prepare before the mission. Ownership isn’t just about taking responsibility when mistakes happen; the highest form of extreme ownership takes place preemptively, before the mistakes occur. So, mitigate problems before they even happen.
Making your team own the plan
If you have a solution you estimate to have 90% effectiveness and you see that plan of your team has only 80%, you should let them execute their plan instead of yours. When you do so, you don’t need to convince them of anything because it’s their idea, they will be fully committed to bring it to life. The commitment alone would make up for the 10% effectiveness. If say your team’s plan has 50% effectiveness, you should guide and bring it up to 70-80 while ensuring it’s still their plan. Of course, if planning process gets bogged down or the team can’t just agree on a course of action, you might need to step in and provide guidance. Otherwise, take a step back and let your team lead.
Controlling the urge to swing into action
There’re times people say and do things that appear to make no sense. But remember anything you say now is based on incomplete and likely inaccurate information. Allow for the situation to unfold and for a more solid picture to appear before you speak up. Even in a gunfight, after the shooting starts you must further assess what’s happening. If you’re being shot at from the North, you obviously need your team to return fire to the North, but you can’t immediately commit your forces to maneuvering on the enemy to the North. You must estimate the size of the opposition, terrain and dynamics of the battlefield to make sure it’s the right decision.
Assuring everyone has the most important job
Explain to your team what will happen if they don’t do their jobs well. Explain how their job titles, no matter too small, fit into the big picture and the strategic mission. The radioman in the battlefield has the most important job because if the team runs into an enemy force and comes under the threat of being overrun, it’s the radio on his back and his ability to use that’s going to save the team. The same is true for medic. There’s nothing more important than bringing the wounded back alive. It’s only him and him alone who keeps the men alive. The rear security man is the most important because he knows where the team is going and what direction to take if they got in a gunfight. The list just goes on. The point is everyone has the most important job. So, let them know that.
Imposing your plan on the team
Think about it. If what you are trying to do is going to benefit your team in accomplishing the mission, why wouldn’t the team be on board? This is what makes requiring a direct order so rare. It happens nonetheless when the agendas of each individual do not align with the mission of the leader. Once a direct order is given, the team may be directed to do something against their will, and they may well not want it to succeed. But still, you can increase your odds by explaining the why so they understand the benefits for themselves.
Getting yourself together when you’re not chosen for leadership position
Instead of allowing yourself to become angry, frustrated, take the opportunity to do a good, honest assessment of yourself to see why you’re not chosen. You may even ask your superiors with tact: “Hey, boss, I wanted to get some feedback from you. As you know there was a recent promotion here, and I eventually want to move up into a more senior leadership position too. I want to know if there’s anything I can focus on or do better, so I am more qualified and more prepared to lead when the next opportunity comes.”
Understanding imposter syndrome
You may feel once you’re in a leadership position, you don’t deserve to be there. This is perfectly normal. In fact, it can be a good thing. It means you’re humble. But you have to trust that they see you’re ready. Now it’s time for you to do the same.
Judging someone based on what you’ve heard
As a new leader, you must keep an open mind and judge people for yourself first-hand. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t consider any prior history a person might have but give the person the benefit of a fresh start.
Balancing positivity and realism
No matter what goes wrong, there’s always good to find in the setback. We got your funding denied. Good, we can learn to be more efficient. The mission we were planning got cancelled. Good, we have now more time prepare. But when you can go too far with positive attitude, your team cannot see the reality of the situation. You got your funding denied. Okay, so this is going to take a little more time than we’d thought, but at least now we can streamline our processes and became as efficient as possible. The mission we were planning got cancelled. Well, this isn’t ideal but at least now we can rehearse some of the details and be even more prepared. Maintain positive outlook but don’t ignore the trials you face. Be positive and be realistic.
Of course, life is the ultimate teacher of humility. If a person takes on true challenges, eventually they’ll get humbled. But that takes time, as leaders we don’t always have time for our team to learn humility. What you can do is you can put the arrogant young leader in charge of a project you know is outside their level of competency. Usually in their arrogance, they’d be excited. They’d think they deserves it. But once they took charge, two things could happen. Chances are they will realize they were in over their heads and come ask for help, in the process get humbled. But it’s also possible they won’t ask for help, ultimately result in failure and get humbled. They will realize they aren’t as awesome as they thought they were. What if he didn’t ask for help and succeeded? Well, you have a leader with a lot of potential. So, give them a mission that’s more difficult. And then even more and more until they fail or ask for help.
Working with micromanager
If you’re working for a micromanager, you have someone who’s engaged and cares about doing a good job. If your manager is indecisive, you can set priorities and guide decisions. If he’s weak, good for you again. You can step up and lead. Regardless of the shortfalls your boss has, build relationships with him, help the team succeed and so will you.
Knowing when to quit
Quitting on a tactical objective can be beneficial, even necessary at times. But you don’t quit the strategic mission. In the battlefield, a leader must decide to quit, regroup and come back to fight later for strategic victory.
Setting the example
Your team will consciously or unconsciously mimic your emotions. If you stay calm, so they’ll. If you panic, they’ll panic as well. Sif you roll your eyes, they notice it. If you’re late for a meeting, they notice it. Subordinates notice everything. They watch. They take notes. They discuss your behavior behind your back. The point is you’re always under surveillance, so do it right every time and set the perfect example.